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The fierce urgency of ... the future

Inspired, and a little scattered, local Dems try to stay fired up


John Morris, head of the county Democrats, explains opportunities for involvement in the local party to a standing-room-only crowd. - JON KELLEY
  • Jon Kelley
  • John Morris, head of the county Democrats, explains opportunities for involvement in the local party to a standing-room-only crowd.

The scene is mildly chaotic Saturday morning as close to 150 Democrats at Hillside Community Center break into groups to talk about the party's future in El Paso County. Introductions take several minutes as the room fills with noise from the different groups and a cluster of kids playing in one corner.

A large group of residents living in state House District 18 finishes the intros and starts talking about what comes next. One man, a grizzled party veteran, stands and fastens his eyes on two or three people who look younger than 30.

"We need you!" he barks.

Christina Heard, a 22-year-old Barack Obama volunteer who just voted in her second presidential election, blushes slightly before the conversation moves on.

Later, as an aside, she gives her thoughts on the political game, gleaned from working on the campaign: "I really like it."

Saturday's meeting is largely an effort to find ways of converting Heard's enthusiasm, and that of other energized Obama supporters, into momentum for a party that has long wandered in the county's political wilderness.

Visible progress

Local Democrats have come a long way in recent years. Michael Merrifield broke a painful electoral dry spell for the party when he was elected a state representative in 2002.

John Morse opened things up farther when he was elected a state senator in 2006, and Dennis Apuan made the latest pickup for Democrats when he was elected on Nov. 4 to the state House.

About midway through Saturday's meeting, Jay Fawcett, an unsuccessful candidate for U.S. Congress in 2006, says the latest statewide gains and enthusiasm for Obama's presidency are encouraging. He suggests the next step will be getting Democrats elected locally. Though Republicans still dominate at this level and have prided themselves in lowering taxes, the precarious finances of both city and county government could provide an opening.

"It's actually kind of funny," Fawcett says, "watching Republicans explain how their own philosophy has gotten to the point where they can't govern."

Saturday's post-election meeting is a new thing for county Democrats. Though the excitement of working on Obama's campaign has worn off, John Morris, the county chair, makes a pitch for staying involved.

Post-election button signifies local Democrats pride in helping Barack Obama become the next president. - JON KELLEY
  • Jon Kelley
  • Post-election button signifies local Democrats pride in helping Barack Obama become the next president.

"This is where the county party goes back to work," he says.

The post-campaign work is not always glorious. The party now has more than 400 precinct chairs responsible for organizing at the county's lowest level, and room for dozens more volunteers to help out in each House and Senate district or to serve on a multitude of standing committees.

One group of Democrats will have the fun task of planning the party's caucuses and county assembly in 2010. Then there are the city and county volunteer boards, which advise elected officials on everything from building codes to highway design.

Gary Turner is one Democrat taking this approach for getting involved. He's serving his second term on the Colorado Springs liquor board, and has become the group's chair. Now 22, Turner was appointed to the board three years ago, before he could legally drink alcohol.

"Everyone has to start somewhere," he says, noting it helps to be active early. "My goal is to develop kind of a base for getting more young people involved."

Next steps

Thousands of Colorado Springs residents made phone calls and knocked on doors to help Obama. Many at Saturday's meeting make plans to ask those volunteers to organize parties and other gatherings.

"You have to keep people going," says Chyrese Exline, who just lost in her bid to represent state House District 14. "Otherwise, you run into what it used to be."

Exline remembers a 2006 caucus that drew only five people for the gathering of her precinct and six others. This year in February, she says, 250 people showed up from the same precincts.

Susan Jefferson sees Obama's victory as an opening. She's laying the groundwork for a local celebration of Obama's Jan. 20 inauguration.

"We have an opportunity to wake up El Paso County," she says breathlessly. "We can't let this go by."

While some Democrats see the opportunity for spectacle and excitement to carry things forward, others look at this year's election results to plan the next round. John McCain beat Obama in El Paso County by a margin of 59-40. Hal Bidlack, running for U.S. Congress, lost the local vote 60-37.

While the numbers sound daunting for any Democrat hoping to win a county-wide office or to compete for the 5th Congressional District seat held by Doug Lamborn, Bob Nemanich believes it can be done.

Nemanich, a Democratic precinct chair, estimates the party can compete in El Paso County by winning better than two-thirds of the county's unaffiliated voters, and he says he's identified the campaign issue that will help them do it.

"I think," he says, "the issue is fair and equitable taxes."

Where'd the voters go?

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